21 Core Sales Competencies Based on 1.8M Leaders

Emily Kingland
March 5, 2020
21 Core Sales Competencies Based on 1.8M Leaders

Let's talk sales competencies. The top 10% of salespeople do this thing 304% more than the bottom 2% of salespeople. Before I tell you what it is, I want to geek out a little bit about data. See, we have something like 30 years worth of data from 1.8M sales reps and leaders that give us unexpected insights into what makes a salesperson. It isn’t gender. It isn’t education. It isn’t even previous experience... The best predictors of whether a potential new hire is going to succeed in sales can be found in 21 core sales competencies, like whether they think $50,000 is a lot of money or whether they’re motivated. (Oh, and that thing that the top 10% do is listen.) What are the top sales competencies? The top sales competencies that sales pros should strive to possess include

  1. A strong desire for sales success
  2. Motivation
  3. The ability to control emotions
  4. A supportive buy cycle
  5. CRM savviness

Read on to discover the other 16 core sales competencies!

I’m Lori Richardson, President of Women Sales Pros and Founder and CEO of Score More Sales. Joining me is the executive producer of The B2B Sales Show, James Carbary. On this episode of The B2B Sales Show, I talk about the 21 core sales competencies that make for success in selling. So, a team at Florida State University leveraged a massive data set to look into the link between an employee’s prior work experience and performance in a new organization. Their conclusion? No significant correlation between the two. Meaning that even when people held roles in functions or industries relevant to their current ones, it did not translate into better performance. Read about it at HBR here: Experience doesn’t predict a new hire’s success. Pre-hire experience isn’t a measure of behavior. It just isn’t. What that means for hiring managers?

  • We need to find objective ways to hire
  • We have to identify the people who are and are not coachable for sales roles
  • We need to do a better job of delving into pre-hire performance, not experience

The elite 7% have top sales competencies

Managers spend hours and hours interviewing people. Every single one of us would love a way to weed out people who don’t have what it takes and shortcut straight to people who are recommended. Only about 7% of the nearly 1.9 million people worldwide that were assessed in this data set can be considered elite salespeople. Yeah, that’s a small amount. About 20% of those are considered good. So that leaves 73% who probably aren’t a good fit in sales. This has nothing to do with what gender they were or how many years they’d been in sales. Most of the factors have to do with personality, perspective, and mindset. Back to that idea that the top 10% were staggeringly more effective at listening and asking questions than the bottom 2%. It’s attributes like that, rather than previous job titles, that we need to be searching for. There are 4 overarching categories spread across the 21 core competencies that are so much more important in hiring salespeople than prior work experience.

  • The Will to Sell
  • Sales DNA
  • Tactical Skills
  • Systems & Strategies

Let’s dive straight in!

“That's the thing you learn about sales over time, not to take things personally. You fill your pipeline so that you have multiple opportunities, and you're not desperate for any one thing.” —Lori Richardson

The will to sell

One of the biggest areas of these 21 core competencies is the Will to Sell. Think for a moment about that horrible grade school teacher who had been there for years. (Lori’s was a total caricature who actually used a megaphone on all the eighth graders.) You know, someone who has been in their role forever and hasn’t done a quality job in quite possibly decades. If you map that personality onto a salesperson, you’ll see that the will just isn’t there. Regardless of experience, the desire to perform well is just stagnant.

The Will to Sell has to do with your desire for success, your commitment to sales success, how motivated you are, whether you have a good outlook about your company and role, and whether you take responsibility.

Strong desire for sales success

This is what we should measure far and above whether someone’s ever made a sales call before: desire for sales success.

Strong commitment to sales success

There won’t be any bored, megaphoning eighth-grade teachers on our staff if we examine commitment straight off the bat.


Tactical Skills like the art of calling (see below) can be taught, but motivation can’t. This speaks to an elite salesperson’s desire to excel in their role.

Good outlook

This one ties in strongly with Sales DNA — more on that later. Bottom line, though, a good outlook can carry you through a dry selling spell way more than a Bachelor’s in Sales can do.

Takes responsibility

To round off the core five competencies, we have to add responsibility, someone who won’t blame their territory when numbers aren’t a quota. Lori’s take: If you don't have that Will to Sell, it's a deal-breaker.

Sales DNA

In combination with the Will to Sell, core sales competencies — that can’t be taught — are called Sales DNA. These are the underlying layer of abilities and attributes that help salespeople achieve success. Sales DNA has to do with what’s going on in our minds, like whether we need approval or whether we have supportive beliefs.

Doesn't need approval

Do successful salespeople typically feel like they need approval? That they need to be liked? Nope. Before they pick up the phone, people with the right Sales DNA don’t worry that they’re calling back too soon, might make someone angry, or might not make a friend.

Controls emotions

Controlling emotions isn’t about not crying. It’s about living in the present moment. You're not focusing on your commission check from last week or the deal that you didn't get. Instead, you’re focusing on your buyer. Salespeople who control emotions are much more likely to be able to listen and respond with both prospects and with reps.

Supportive beliefs

Supportive beliefs are what you say in your head. “Sales is really hard” is an unsupportive belief. “Sales is an untapped opportunity” is a supportive belief. (You could also express this idea as positive self-talk.)

Supportive buy cycle

Supportive buy cycles relate to the mindset of how you buy as a consumer and thus how you expect your customers to buy. If you get 10 quotes, you won’t be floored when a buyer says they plan to look around a little bit.

Comfortable with money talk

Weirdly enough, not all salespeople are comfortable talking about money. Try out this exercise: Can you be comfortable carrying around a lot of money? And… what do you think “a lot of money” actually is? If you sell items and services that are $50,000 but don’t think that’s “a lot,” you’ll be more successful than someone who feels intimidated by that sum.

Rejection proof

Being rejection proof has to do with whether you carry rejection with you. Today you're down because yesterday you missed an opportunity. That kind of mindset isn’t compatible with elite sales. Someone who’s rejection proof will dissect the situation, sure, to find out what they could have done differently. But — and here’s the key — they don’t take the situation personally. They go on to the next opportunity. Lori’s take: That's the funny thing you learn about sales overtime — to not take things personally. You fill your pipeline so that you have multiple opportunities, and you're not desperate for any one thing.

“If deep down you're looking to win friends rather than be respected, you're probably not going to be successful. You're probably not going to be recommended as a candidate.” —Lori Richardson

Tactical skills

Tactical Skills can be taught more easily than the Will to Sell and Sales DNA. These are the things you can actually train people on. You don’t have to hire them because they already have these skills but because these are trainable. This is part of why we need to reevaluate performance at past jobs, not just what the jobs were. If, for example, someone has a great approach to presenting, even if they weren’t presenting with sales in mind, that’s an important factor in a hiring decision.

Check out these 7 Tactical Skills that set apart the good from the people who are way less likely to rock a sales job:

  1. Hunting skills
  2. Selling value
  3. Consultative selling skills
  4. Qualifying skills
  5. Presentation approach & content
  6. Closing skills
  7. Relationship building skills

These Tactical Skills as a category are concepts of skills that need to be learned. One more thing to notice here: there's no brand name on these. Relationship building skills, for example, don’t have to be this or that program. Lori’s take: There’s no one company that can train on this. It can be done in lots of different ways.

Systems and strategies

Like Tactical Skills, systems and strategies are trainable achievements that make a person more likely to succeed at sales. Before you start training someone on a strong CRM program, you need to check their commitment to sales. You need to be sure their mindset is positive. You need to know they won’t be afraid to make a call or will lack resiliency when they don’t land a sale. In other words, while these systems and strategies are essential for success, they’re heavily reliant on those unteachable personality attributes mentioned above.

Milestone-centric sales process

The company needs to have in place a milestone-centric sales process for a salesperson to achieve. As a salesperson, if you're good at what you do, you're used to working a process. An important part of being successful in sales is that you can't just wing it… You can’t just dive in at any point. You need to know and love the process so you can seize opportunities moving forward.

CRM savvy

Project management. Tracking data and performance. A strong CRM program. Enough said.

Mastery of social selling tools

Even though many of their underlying theories are the same, social selling tools change often. An elite salesperson has the dedication and the drive to learn to stay at the edge of her game in this dynamic landscape. Lori’s take: If deep down you're looking to win friends rather than be respected, you're probably not going to be successful, and you're probably not going to be recommended as a candidate.

“If you don't have that Will to Sell, it's a deal-breaker.” —Lori Richardson

Two takeaways

Okay, take a step way, way back for a moment. These 21 core sales competencies are completely blind to race, age, gender, class, education, intelligence type, and prior experience. If you’re hiring reps, you need to be tuned into what these 21 core competencies are. Not what an applicant wrote down in the “Previous Employment” section. In order to get the right people and onboard the right reps into your team (as opposed to starting with an uphill battle), dial into whether your applicant has a supportive buy cycle. Think about whether she controls emotions and displays motivation.

Takeaway #1 — Evaluate your present sales team

If you're a new sales leader in a company or an experienced sales leader who suspects your team is low on Sales DNA, have the sales team evaluated. Measure them not for years in sales but for the Will to Sell and their mindset toward applying their Tactical Skills. Lori’s company helps evaluate the people, the reps, the leadership, the process, and the pipeline from the perspective of these 21 sales competencies.

Takeaway #2 Use a predictive tool

Everyone wants to hire reps last longer, ramp up quicker, and have the right characteristics to be successful. Get started early in the hiring process by using a tool to measure sales competencies that matter. (Don’t hire someone because he’s from the industry, she came with a great employment background, he’s really good at this other company, or she once dropped by your holiday party.) A positive consequence of using a predictive tool to evaluate core competencies is that you’ll get more diverse candidates. Everyone gets evaluated. The tool doesn’t ask about gender or experience in sales. Lori’s take: We see clients that end up with more women on their sales team after using a predictive tool like this. Thanks for listening to this episode of The B2B Sales Show, co-hosted by Lori Richardson, President of Women Sales Pros.Find Lori on LinkedIn and tell her you listened to the podcast! Connect with her about the 21 core sales competencies or getting a predictive tool to assess potential reps.Check out @WomenSalesPros, @ScoreMoreSales, and @B2BSalesShow on Instagram.You can find this interview and many more by subscribing to The B2B Sales Show on Apple Podcasts.If you don’t use Apple Podcasts, you can listen to every episode by clicking here.Until next time!

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